Eddie C. Campbell may not have had major name recognition among the general public, but in Chicago’s blues circles, he was a towering guitarist, blues vocalist and songwriter whose career spanned decades.
Campbell’s career got underway in the ’50s and ’60s, but unlike many of his peers who also had roots in the rural South, he continued to play clubs and record new stuff in the 1990s and 2000s, too, not content to simply continue playing the standards.
“He epitomized the West Side sound, which included R&B and soul,” Chicago music historian James Porter said. “He had an excellent voice, an excellent blues voice, but he was more distinguished as a guitarist and a songwriter.”
Campbell died Tuesday of heart failure at home in Oak Park, his wife and manager, Barbara Mayson, announced on Facebook. He was 79.
“I have my own true sound,” Campbell told the Chicago Sun-Times in 1995, before a free show at the Harold Washington Library. “I write my own music, I arrange my own music, from bass to the horns. … Remember, just because I’m living on the South Side or living on the West Side doesn’t mean it is a South Side or West Side music.
“Blues are an individual’s music.”
Campbell was born on May 6, 1939, to sharecroppers in tiny Duncan, Mississippi. He moved to Chicago at age 6, as his family joined thousands of other African-American families leaving the rural, segregated South for the more industrialized cities of the North.
His mother took him to the old 1125 Club on West Madison Street. There, he met her friend Muddy Waters. By age 12, he was sitting in with Waters’ band.
As a teen, Campbell played in a band with Luther Allison, his neighbor, and later with Little Walter, who’d revolutionize the harmonica the way Jimi Hendrix did the electric guitar.
But Campbell also had a knack for boxing, winning 16 heavyweight fights in a row.
He once was booked to fight Muhammad Ali when the champ was still known as Cassius Clay. The pair knew each other; they bought their motorcycles at the same shop. Motorcycles would sideline Campbell’s pro boxing career when he had an accident and broke his leg.
“In 1959, I weighed 210 and was going to fight Ali in the Golden Gloves,” Campbell said. “But I was too happy with my motorcycles.”
In 1963, he became bandleader for Jimmy Reed, whose minimalist guitar playing and slurred singing style he adopted. And then he played with Willie Dixon’s Chicago Blues All-Stars and Koko Taylor.
In the 1970s, Campbell dressed, drove and performed flamboyantly, riding a purple Honda 750 motorcycle through the West Side.
He released his first LP, “King of the Jungle,” in 1977; its cover featured him in a fur vest and full Afro.
The opening track he penned on it, “Santa’s Messing with the Kid,” became a Christmas staple and was covered by Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Campbell spent the 1980s in Europe, touring and living in the Netherlands and Germany. While overseas, he met his wife who also became his manager. They moved to the States in 1992.
Several more albums came on different recording labels, the last two on the Chicago’s historic Delmark Records.
“He never made a bad record,” Porter said, though his debut and “That’s When I Know” (1994) and “Tear This World Up” (2009), his first for Delmark, stand out.
Campbell’s his last album, Spider Eating Preacher (2012) snagged an American Blues Award nomination for best traditional blues album in 2013, according to Delmark’s president Julia Miller, who emphasized how significant he was in shaping the West Side Blues sound.
“He was not a purist and his music had hints of rock in it,” she said. “And he was a great West Side blues guitar hero.”
But that same year, while touring Europe, Campbell suffered a heart attack and stroke in Germany that left him partially paralyzed. The blues community rallied around him, raising money to bring him home.
He could still play harmonica and sing — and still turned out to public appearances — but he couldn’t play guitar anymore.
“After the stroke, it was an event when he showed up in public,” Porter said. “The Chicago blues community is in mourning right now.”
Aside from his wife, Campbell is survived by a daughter, Sheba, and a son, David.
Arrangements for a memorial service are pending.